Rhys Hughes is a Welsh writer of fantasy, specualtive fiction, and magic realism who often uses comedy and absurdism to examine philosophical issues. Hughes is immensely prolific, having written hundreds of short stories, ebooks, novellas, and novels. His main project is a story cycle consisting of exactly 1000 linked stories bound under the overall title of Pandora’s Bluff; he has currently written 694 of those stories. His most recent collection of stories is Tallest Stories (Eibonvale Press), published earlier this year and recently available in paperback. Hughes sees Tallest Stories as his most important collection yet. He also has a novel coming out soon, The Abnormalities of Stringent Strange (Meteor House). The following story, “Rediffusion,” was originally published as part of the anthology Never Again (Gray Friar Press), edited by Allyson Bird and Joel Lane, and later collected in The World Idiot, available in ebook form from Smashwords. You can find more from the author at his personal site. – The Editors
They came for me just after midnight, those devious inspectors, opening my door with a special key and rushing into my living room before I had a chance to even get out of my chair. I had always imagined I would have plenty of time to hide the television in a cupboard before they entered, but the reality was quite different. I was helpless and they were merciless and they took my machine as evidence.
True, I had ignored no less than three warning letters, but I hadn’t felt guilty in the slightest about not buying a licence. Still don’t, in fact. At no point in my longish life had I ever entertained the notion of obtaining one. The expense was simply absurd. The best part of a full week’s wages just for the minor privilege of viewing one outmoded and rather staid channel among thousands. It didn’t seem right.
I was surprised the inspectors had the power to handcuff me, kick me with fake leather boots and bundle me into the back of a van. Clearly the law had recently been changed in this regard without my knowledge. Was it even a criminal offence to watch television without a licence? The thug sitting in the back of the van assured me it was, then he slapped me in my insolent mouth, breaking a tooth.
The van swayed around bends, accelerated over a bumpy road, slowly climbed a steep hill somewhere. I had the impression we were leaving the city, but when it finally stopped and I was let out, I found myself blinking up at the renowned corporation tower, a building not more than few miles from my house. Later I learned that the driver had taken a lengthy detour so he might claim higher expenses.
I was pushed up the stone steps and through the gaping portal into the impressive lobby, but my guards didn’t let me loiter in this cool spot for more than a few seconds before yanking me down a narrow passage that twisted and coiled like an intestine and ended in a blank wall. A narrow metal ladder speared into the ceiling at this point and I was told to climb it on my own. I did so unsteadily.
A dozen rungs later, I emerged into a wood panelled chamber. A hatch beneath my feet closed silently, cutting off my retreat. I was standing in the dock of an improvised courtroom, facing a judge who was nothing more than a gigantic image on a vast plasma screen. Two smaller screens displayed the prosecution and defence lawyers but the stations were badly tuned and the pictures fragmented.
It seemed I was late for my own trial and that the process was already over, for the judge was midway through his condemnation. “Unspeakably guilty of living as a broadcast parasite,” he intoned, “and therefore wisely sentenced to more years in prison than shall be deemed unseemly.” It was an odd sentence, both verbally and judicially, and I was too bewildered to utter an objection. I merely wept.
I had expected a warning, possibly a fine, certainly not imprisonment, and a wave of revulsion engulfed me. I staggered out of the dock, tried to locate the exit, sought to elude my fate, to flee. Instantly three new guards jumped out from behind furniture to apprehend me. One drew a futuristic gun out of a silver holster. He aimed it at my head, pulled the trigger and a hidden spring released its energy.
From the barrel of the gun emerged a cardboard bolt of lightning that jabbed me in the centre of my forehead then bounced harmlessly off. At the same instant, one of the other guards pushed me to the floor while the third placed his mouth next to my ear and cried, “Bzzzzzt!” I realised this was a typical stratagem of the corporation, a cheap prop rather than a real weapon, a low budget special effect.
“You’ve been stunned by the ray,” said the marksman.
“If you say so,” I replied.
“Don’t move at all, you’re paralysed,” he added.
“For how long?” I asked.
“Until we get you into your cell. Don’t forget. Sensation will return to your hands, then your legs, then your mind. We’ll be watching to make sure you do it in the right order.”
I said nothing, figuring that the paralysis was also supposed to extend to my tongue. They carried my stiff body out of the courtroom and down a wide corridor to a door that opened onto a large courtyard. At the centre of the courtyard stood a brick prison. I was amazed to see such a building hidden within the corporation tower. Tiny barred windows perforated the dizzy heights of irregular turrets.
The perspectives didn’t seem right, but then I recalled how an ordinary television set can manage to fit imposing mountain ranges and undulating deserts into the width of a screen and my surprise decayed as rapidly as a neglected cosine wave or bowl of forgotten cherries. The sentry posted at the prison gate shook his head fiercely, as if he sought to restore reception to a misfiring cathode ray tube.
“An awkward customer, resisted arrest, I see.”
My bearers nodded and lowered me slowly into his extended muscular arms. “He’s rather a crafty one.”
“Soon reduce him in size,” came the reply.
Then he turned and ran into the prison at a speed I deemed absurd and dangerous down a succession of dim curving corridors, narrowly missing other sentries and prisoners, clearly anxious to demonstrate his unnatural strength and stamina. His heavy feet slapped the flagstones like tsunamis of molten basalt. Despite my official paralysis, I made appreciative noises to humour him. I even sniggered.
Skidding to a halt before an open cell, he brusquely cast me inside and slammed the grey door, then raced back the way he had come. I landed on a low bed and my subsequent injuries were minor or imaginary, so I stood and flexed life back into my limbs, obeying the recommended sequence to satisfy any secret cameras that might be observing. Then I realised the key to my door was on the inside.
This oversight seemed too bizarre to be plausible, but I took advantage of the opportunity to slip out of my cell and tiptoe along the corridors. At first I was anxious and excited, then it dawned on me that the prison was actually a complex labyrinth and that I was profoundly lost. The laxity of the security measures was merely an illusion. The outer exit must always elude my desperate wanderings.
Two guards with buckets and brushes turned a corner and yelled at me to halt. I panicked and ran, nursing my aching jaw and whimpering. Then I tripped and sprawled. I heard the slurp of paint and felt the rough caress of bristles. They were painting vertical lines on my clothes, the traditional convict stripes. After they finished, they casually sauntered away and left me alone, but now I was branded.
I remained on my hands and knees and crawled down a side passage to an open door. The space beyond was an ugly forest of legs, a recreation area of some sort, a communal room. I scuttled like a crippled crab to the nearest vacant chair, hauled myself onto it. Now I was part of an audience facing a television screen. The other members of this audience were also prisoners and we watched in silence.
Cheap soap operas were followed by light news bulletins and domestic shows concerned with cooking, gardening, finance. Cartoons were also in evidence. After an hour, the situation became unbearable and I whispered this fact to my neighbour. “I have been incarcerated for neglecting to pay my television licence and yet I’m clearly allowed to enjoy free television in prison. How ironic is that?” I asked.
He rubbed his bleary eyes and replied, “Not very, considering we’re all inside for the same crime. Only licence dodgers are permitted to rot in the private dungeons of the corporation. But it seems you are labouring under the delusion that television is provided to prisoners as a privilege or act of compassion. Even here a license is mandatory. Don’t you have one? Theft of corporation images is serious.”
“You are joking, surely?” I spluttered.
He shook his head. “The inspectors are vigilant and unforgiving. They always punish cheating eyes.”
“This news is terrible. What should I do?”
“Buy a licence, of course.”
“But I have no money or means of making any!”
“That is not a valid excuse.”
“In that case, I won’t enter this room again. I’ll forsake the pleasures of televised broadcasts and remain in my cell. But as this is my first day, I’m not sure how to get back there.”
“All dungeons are identical. Take your pick.”
“I thank you for your advice. Please don’t reveal the fact I sat here and absorbed one full illegal hour of broadcasting. In future I’ll ask my guards for books or magazines instead.”
He plucked my sleeve and pulled me back. “Even if you don’t watch it, you still need a licence for any working television set on the premises. It’s futile for you to attempt to hide.”
I shook him free and fled the recreation area, my heart pounding. Then I soothed myself with the thought that I was merely the victim of a subtle jest, an experiment with practical paradox. An imprisoned licence avoider being forced to obtain a licence for a television set provided by the prison authorities. Utterly ridiculous! Yes, it was a jest. There could be no other sensible explanation, none at all.
I soon located an unoccupied cell, possibly even my own, and fell into a troubled sleep on the uncomfortable mattress. When I awoke I saw that an envelope addressed to me had been slid under my door. It contained a warning letter from the corporation. Apparently, the inspectors had been alerted to the fact I didn’t have a valid licence. I sat trembling on the edge of the bed, awaiting developments.
They came a few days later, dragged me away, pushed me up a ladder into another courtroom. Again I was found guilty by a flatscreen judge in a digital wig, then prodded, pinched and buffeted down endless corridors and through a door into a courtyard in the centre of which stood a smaller prison. I laughed unhappily. Prisons within prisons. A new sentry clasped me in his arms, hurried me inside.
This prison was full of broadcast parasites who had defaulted not once but twice and we were made to feel doubly accursed. I had the impression that the process of relocating me here had somehow reduced my physical size as well as diminished my self-esteem. Body and soul shrunk to fit an implacable credo, the unbending and illogical will of the corporation, the nightmare of rigorous absurdity.
The corridors of my new home were thin and confusing. I stumbled on the communal television room on my second day and stood silently at the entrance, swallowing hard. When I returned to my cell, the expected letter had already been delivered. It accused me of attempting to exist without a licence despite having access to a television. Inspectors would shortly be dispatched to deal with the anomaly…
They came with their usual sarcasm and fists. This prison contained its own virtual courtroom and judge, its own courtyard that was the location of a third prison, to the entrance of which they dragged me. Then another strong sentry and bare cell, another automatic violation of the television licensing laws, another threatening letter. An appalling process had been set in motion. An inward spiral.
The prisons grew progressively smaller, but so did I, so did my guards, and everything shrunk in perfect proportion, like a cannibal who boils his own head in the same pot as the skulls of his victims. One morning I had a visitor who was not an inspector. He identified himself as a corporation lawyer working for the best interests of the convicts. He entered my cell wearing a silk suit and oily smile.
“There is another way,” he declared simply.
“Kindly elucidate,” I replied.
“Experiments are taking place on living specimens. Any prisoner who volunteers will be spared the indignity of constant arrest, trial, relocation. Your sentences are adding up into something resembling a paragraph, a page, or even a book, of despair. This can be stopped easily enough. You merely need to sign this form.”
Without looking, I asked, “And if I do?”
“A series of controls will be fitted into your nervous system. Knobs or buttons that can adjust your colour balance, your contrast, audibility, even the particular channel of your thoughts, whenever we desire. Your spinal fluid will be drained and replaced with a metallic solution that will enable you to receive corporation signals.”
“And if I decline this generous offer?”
“You will continue to occupy smaller and smaller prisons until you are trapped inside an institution no larger than a single pixel on a screen. That will be the point of no return, the dot of ultimate doom, the final spark of closedown, the singularity of sorrow!”
I chewed my lip. “May I think it over tonight?”
He nodded sourly. “I suppose so, but you must give an answer before the inspectors come for you at noon tomorrow. In the meantime be aware that the governor of the corporation, Bogie Laird, is visiting this prison in disguise. Nobody knows what form he has chosen, so it’s imperative to be humble to every individual you meet.”
I blurted impulsively, “Are you Bogie Laird?”
He snarled and raised his clenched fists, his silk suit splitting its seams as his muscles expanded. “How dare you be so perspicacious? I predict a traumatic final episode for you…”
Then he lurched out of my cell, howling, his suit rapidly disintegrating as he went, leaving me in an acute state of agitation. But I recovered soon enough and emulated his example, vacating my cubicle and going for one of my usual random strolls. Down one passage I heard a bland vibration, a refreshing change from the ceaseless babble of televised entertainment, and I felt compelled to investigate.
In a tiny room that stank of stale tobacco smoke and was slippery with spilled tea, a brace of off-duty guards sat around a prisoner who had been recently modified. Standing rigidly to attention, eyes popping with static, lips humming a monotone, the volunteer grimaced while one of the jaded guards slapped and shook him, restoring coherent reflections to his pupils for just a few moments at a time.
I wanted to jump forward, make my indignant presence felt, sweep an admonishing finger across every bored face. I wanted to express my fury in a mighty shout. “So this is how you spend your free time? Surfing dead channels within the hopeless eyes of a prisoner! But do any of you have a valid licence to watch him? The corporation will be informed if you don’t and inspectors will be activated!”
But before I could make the leap, it occurred to me that the prisoner in question might be none other than Bogie Laird in a new disguise, and the more I pondered this possibility the more convincing it became, so I lost my nerve and slipped away before I was noticed. My one chance to mock the system had been lost, my final opportunity to use irony as a retaliatory weapon had faded and dissolved.
Naturally enough, after this incident, I was reluctant to submit myself for treatment and so the hideous cycle of arrest, trial and incarceration in diminishing prisons continued. After many years I reached the smallest of them all, a mere dot. I was trapped inside a single pixel on the screen of a television I presumed was unlicensed, a machine whose owner must soon be visited by the inevitable inspectors.
Instead of eschewing the recreational facilities of my enforced abode, I wasted half my free time sitting in front of the communal television. Still without a licence, I was also without fear. Arrest entailed no motion at all, for there was nowhere even smaller to send me. It was therefore possible to safely ignore all warning letters. On some level, the lowest imaginable, I had finally cheated the authorities.
But the entertainment on offer left much to be desired. Every channel displayed the same unchanging image, a room full of people who sat with their backs to me. They were dressed in grey clothes and their bald heads glistened in the glare of an unspecified light source as they watched with grim reverence something beyond the screen. I studied them intently and thought about them during my walks.
Recursion can be a terrible thing, and one day I found a service ladder to the roof and climbed onto the tiles, my hands rouged with rust from the corroded rungs. There was no safe descent to the courtyard below. On all sides reared the walls of the next smallest prison, and above those loomed the higher walls of the third smallest prison, and over those leered the still taller walls of the fourth smallest…
And so on, all the way back to the almost forgotten beginning. Prisons within courtyards, courtyards within prisons, prisons within the courtyard of the corporation tower. The concave surface of that impossible building appeared unimaginably remote now, as unattainable as the inner shell of the universe, and the lights of its windows burned like artificial quasars at the perimeter of a synthetic reality.
The spectacle was unbearable, so I looked directly upwards instead. At the furthest limit of a cylinder so immense and imposing it contained all the misery I could ever conceive for myself, I beheld a glass screen with blurred faces on the other side that were mostly fixed to the fronts of bald heads. Then I knew this truth. If I am part of a fictional drama and not a factual documentary, I might not go mad.